Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Prokofiev, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mana-Zucca

The Jupiter Players actually began their season two weeks ago; unfortunately, the temperature (97F) that day set a record here in New York City while the performance venue - Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street - lacked air conditioning.  As I was scheduled to fly to Arizona the following day, I reluctantly decided not to attend.  Yesterday, then, was for me the true start of  2015-2016 classical music season, an overview of which I provided in my last post.  I felt the program offered by the Jupiter Players - which included works by Prokofiev, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mana-Zucca - was as an auspicious beginning as I could have wished.

The afternoon began with Prokofiev's Sonata in C major for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932).  The composer is such an icon of Soviet culture that it's difficult to remember that, prior to his return to the USSR in 1936, he sojourned for many years in both the USA and Western Europe.  The present piece was actually written while he was on holiday in St. Tropez which, to my mind at least, is the last place one would associate with this Russian artist.  Although to the best of my knowledge Prokofiev was not a violinist (he was, however, a virtuoso pianist), I've found his works for violin to be among the most interesting of his creations, particularly the fascinating First Violin Sonata, Op. 80.  The present piece was obviously an important work, but this was actually the first occasion I'd had to hear it.  Prokofiev claimed to have been inspired to write it after having heard another sonata for the same instrumentation (by a composer he left unnamed) that he considered "unsuccessful."

The next work was Beethoven's Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 16 (1796) for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon.  As is evident from the opus number, this was a very early work written long before the composer began to experience difficulties with his hearing and was still known in Vienna primarily for his talent as a pianist.  As was the case with most of his compositions from this period, Beethoven was here heavily under the influence of Haydn and Mozart whose own Quintet, K. 452 is often thought to have provided the model for this work.  The attribution is hardly surprising since both quintets are not only scored for the same instruments but are also written in the same key.  Nevertheless, even to a non-musician such as myself, there are substantial differences between the two works.  Most importantly, the earlier quintet is a much more mature composition written when Mozart had already achieved full mastery of his powers.  Although Beethoven had already written several pieces for piano by this stage in his career, this was among the first to incorporate winds as accompaniment.

There is an amusing anecdote regarding the Beethoven quintet told by his protege Ferdinand Ries that is quoted on the Jupiter Players' website:
"In the last Allegro a pause occurs several times before the theme returns; on one of these occasions Beethoven began to improvise, taking the Rondo as his theme, pleasing himself and those listening for a considerable time, but not pleasing the other players. They were annoyed, and the oboist even enraged. It really looked highly comical when these gentlemen, expecting the movement to be resumed at any moment, kept putting their instruments to their mouths, but then had to put them down again without playing a note. At length Beethoven was satisfied, and started up the Rondo again. The whole assembly was delighted."
After intermission, the ensemble performed Mana-Zucca's Hakinoh, Op. 186 (1956) for viola and piano.  To be honest, I had never even heard this composer's name - she was born Gussie Zuckermann in 1885 - before having seen the program for Monday's recital and so had no idea what to expect.  All I knew of this artist came from having read the brief biography on Wikipedia referenced above.  The idea of any musical figure (she was apparently also a pianist and soprano) staging concerts in a Miami living room was certainly intriguing, though, and I was very much looking forward to hearing her music.  This proved to be a very short piece (approximately five minutes long) that contained a number of references to Jewish folk music.  The expert violist Paul Neubauer gave a particularly impassioned rendition.

The final piece on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 87 (1845), a late work written only two years before the composer's death.  Though the piece is today often performed and is recognized as a standard of the chamber repertoire, the composer himself did not hold it in high regard and it was only published posthumously in 1851.  Judging from comments he made to his associate Ignaz Moscheles, his associate at the Leipzig Conservatory, it was the finale, an allegro molto vivace, that gave Mendelssohn the most trouble and caused him to put the work aside.  Interestingly, violinist Mark Kaplan mentioned to the audience that the version being performed here was not the standard edition but one published only recently.  He seemed to suggest that the differences lay primarily in the final movement and that this version was closer to the composer's autograph.  It was really the third movement, though, marked adagio e lento (most slow movements composed by Mendelssohn were marked andante), that I found most interesting.

After not having seen the Jupiter Players for several months, it was refreshing to be reminded how skilled and professional these musicians are and what incredible guest artists they are able to attract.  The ensemble represents a wonderful resource for anyone with the slightest interest in the chamber repertoire.  I plan to see them many more times in the coming months.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The 2015-2016 NYC Classical Music Season

It's once again mid-September and time to look forward to all the great music the city has to offer to those of us lucky enough to be located here.  I'll be posting separately on each event, of course, but a brief overview might be helpful.

At Carnegie Hall, I will be attending a total of thirteen performances beginning with Strauss's Elektra on October 21.  Andris Nelsons, who made a great impression on me when I first saw him conduct last season, will here lead the Boston Symphony; Christine Goerke will sing the title role.  In the following months I will hear other great orchestras at this venerable hall, most notably Simon Rattle leading the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic in November in a rendition of Beethoven's Ninth.  In addition, the Cleveland Orchestra will perform two Mozart piano concertos featuring Mitsuko Uchida as soloist; the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Valery Gergiev, will perform selections from Wagner's Götterdämmerung; Orpheus will offer Mozart's Third Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zuckerman as soloist; and the San Francisco Symphony, led by its long time music director Michael Tilson Thomas, will perform both Schubert's Eighth and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on the same program.  As far as the piano repertoire is concerned, I will be hearing solo recitals by András Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Jeremy Denk and - best of all, for me at least - Yefim Bronfman performing the Prokofiev sonatas.  But the climax of Carnegie's season will come at the very end when, within a week's time in May, James Levine - whom I consider the greatest conductor now active - is scheduled to lead the Met Orchestra in three historic concerts.  One will feature Evgeny Kissin as soloist (Rachmaninoff Concerto #2) and another Renée Fleming (Strauss's Four Last Songs).  The third and final concert will consist of selections from Wagner's Ring.

At the Met Opera, I will be attending eight operas over the course of the season. These will include Verdi's Il Trovatore, Otello and Simon Boccanegra as well as Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  I'm also looking forward to hearing Sondra Radvanovsky, who thrilled me two seasons ago in the title role of Bellini's Norma, sing in two of Donizetti's three "Tudor Queen" operas - Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux. Perhaps the Met's most intriguing offering will be Bizet's rarely performed (this will be its first appearance in the company's repertory in 100 years) Les pêcheurs de perles with Diana Damrau.

I rarely subscribe to the Great Performers at Lincoln Center, but this season there are three orchestral performances (all in the same series) that I didn't want to miss. Valery Gergiev will lead the London Symphony in an all-Bartók program; Gustavo Dudamel will conduct Mahler's Third with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and Joshua Bell will lead the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a program that includes Beethoven's Eighth.

The Jupiter Players will again be providing a series of twenty chamber recitals from May through September at Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street.  The company consists of accomplished musicians and distinguished guest artists, but what really sets this ensemble apart is the breadth of its repertoire.  There are not many opportunities, even here in New York to hear the works of such composers as Reicha, Thieriot, Arensky, or Medtner.  The performance I'm most looking forward to is the Mozart Piano Trio in G major featuring Seymour Lipkin on piano and Miriam Fried on violin.

Though there are not as many offerings at the city's music schools as in past years, the excellent ACJW Ensemble will be giving a series of four recitals at Juilliard's Paul Hall, the first of which will include a performance of Schubert's Octet.

Those who are unable to physically attend all these performances (I'm fortunate enough to be within walking distance of both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center) should check WQXR's website during the season to ascertain which events are being broadcast live.  In addition, several Chamber Music Society performances are scheduled to be webcast via that company's website.  These will include solo recitals by clarinetist David Shifrin in January and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott in February.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Published Novel "The Dark Veil"

One of my greatest literary influences has always been Dashiell Hammett, the the former Pinkerton operative who more or less invented the hard boiled detective novel.  Critics and scholars have traditionally looked down upon him as no more than a "genre writer" and have never been willing to accord him his rightful place in American literature.  But, in my opinion at least, Hammett really is one of the great writers of the twentieth century.  His first novel Red Harvest broke new ground, not only for its hard boiled style, but even more importantly for the portrayal of its protagonist as utterly ruthless and pragmatic in the manner he sets about his task.  The Continental Op doesn't play by the rules; he has a job to do and he accomplishes it without regard to conventional morality.  As far as he is concerned, the end completely justifies the means no matter how many lawbreakers must die in the process.

A few years ago, I stumbled on the original serialized version of The Maltese Falcon that first appeared in Black Mask magazine.  It differed substantially from the final edition that was later published in book form by Knopf.  In the serialized version the writing was rawer and less polished, and so it was easier to understand exactly what Hammett was attempting.  There is no introspection here, no attempt to convey to the reader what is occurring in the minds of the characters.  Instead, there is only action, physical description and dialog.  To the extent that the Sam Spade is defined only by what he does, the detective story is transformed into an unlikely existential novel.

In writing my own noir novel, The Dark Veil, I tried the same approach.  Rather than telling the reader what the protagonist Quinn was thinking at any given moment, I instead allowed the reader to infer his thoughts simply by following his course of action and by listening to what he had to say thus ideally the reader to become a participant in the plot rather than merely a passive spectator.

I hope you will order my novel and take a chance on an unknown author.  I can't promise the book is as good as Hammett's work, but I did try my utmost to write to the best of my ability.